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What we need from Durban UNFCCC Meeting      

What we need from 2011 Durban UNFCCC meeting

By Alistair Graham

The next Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is taking place now in Durban. There are high hopes that the major, comprehensive agreement on fighting climate change that was not reached in Copenhagen in 2009, can be reached this year. The Durban meeting also includes the next meetings of its Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) and Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI) and the next Meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 7). Some of the key issues that need decisions in Durban and ongoing preparatory work in Panama include:


The big decision that needs to be made at the Durban COP is to establish a REDD+ mechanism. This has been at the heart of HSI' s work since our first involvement in the lead up to the Bali COP in 2007 which saw the Coalition of Rainforest Nation' s proposal for a ' ˜reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries' (RED) mechanism widened to include ' ˜forest degradation' (REDD). This was a big breakthrough for conservation as it allowed consideration of all those emissive activities that degrade forests, especially industrial logging, but don' t result in their being cleared, as is the case with cattle ranching, soybean cropping or palm-oil plantations. The ' ˜plus' of REDD+ refers to the Bali COP decision including ' ˜conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancing carbon stocks' ' “ effectively expanding the potential scope of a REDD mechanism to effectively include any forest management activity if an argument could be mounted that it reduced emission (or even was just better than business as usual).

Three critical issues remain to be resolved:

  • What role is to be played by markets in making payments to proponents of REDD projects? HSI remains a strong advocate of establishing the REDD+ mechanism as an open market mechanism (open in the sense that carbon credits should be directly tradeable between landholders and polluters, internationally, without payments going trough governments).
  • What kind of reference levels and baselines should be used for estimating and reporting carbon stocks and emissions and for calculating eligibility for benefits (results based payments). HSI remains keen to see changes in carbon stocks used as the basis for reporting while baselines for calculating benefits must be based on real reductions in emissions, not just being less emissive than business as usual.
  • What safeguards will be agreed and how will they be monitored (MRV ' “ measurement, reporting and verification). This has not been core business for HSI and we have been supportive of the work of fellow NGO members of the Ecosystems Climate Alliance (ECA). HSI has been keen to ensure that emissive activities, like converting natural forests to plantations, are ineligible and that safeguarding biodiversity values is in the mix.

Reference Levels - Dealing with Forest Degradation as well as Deforestation

Surprisingly, negotiators have yet to start serious negotiation about what kind of reference levels they want to use when it comes to establishing starting points for estimating changes attributable forest management changes when it comes to operationalising a REDD+ mechanism. HSI continues to advocate for the introduction of reference levels based on changes in carbon stocks as well as changes in rates of emissions. Such carbon stock reference levels can be used to report changes not just for forests but for any terrestrial landscapes, including agricultural areas.

Using carbon stocks as the primary data set allows degradation of carbon stores in the landscape to be clearly estimated relative to stores in undisturbed landscapes (natural carbon carrying capacity ' “ CCC). This then allows optimal response strategies to be developed ' “ areas with low levels of past degradation are best protected as they are while substantially degraded areas are best rehabilitated. If looked at only from an emissions baseline, it is impossible to tell whether one is dealing with a relatively intact or severely degraded landscape.

LULUCF perversities

As part of its interest in the prompt development of a REDD+ mechanism, HSI continues to expose and oppose the perversity of accounting methodologies used by developed, Annex 1, countries to calculate their emissions for the purpose of reporting progress towards binding emissions reduction targets. The fear is that, if the perversities currently used to under-report LULUCF emissions in developed countries were to be used in developing countries, any REDD+ mechanism would have perverse results ' “ encouraging logging of intact forests while reporting gains in progress towards emissions reduction.

Such perversities can be delivered if countries are allowed to use ' ˜business as usual' baselines for calculating emissions reduction. There is a proposal before negotiators that Annex 1 countries should be allowed to adopt their own, individual, baselines for emissions from their LULUCF sector by projecting forward the emissions attributable to continuation of current policy settings. Emissions ' ˜reduction' can then be reported if actual emissions are less than forecast ' “ even if emissions actually increased ' “ welcome to the Alice in Wonderland world of forest policy in developed countries.

Having allowed the forest industry such a free hand over the years to dominate the UNFCCC' s approach to LULUCF has created a major problem for countries, especially Australia, wanting to expand their policy response to climate change problems to include the agricultural sector as well as the forestry sector. The current approach involves dividing up the landscape into ' ˜managed' and ' ˜unmanaged' land (where forested land controlled by forestry agencies is ' ˜managed' while other forested land is not). The implication of the concept of ' ˜managed' is that the landholder is responsible for all of the activities that might generate emissions ' “ a fine statement of power and control. But as the Canadians and Australians have come to realise, natural disturbance attributable to disease or wildfire can overwhelm even the most determined of managers.

Developed countries have responded to this acceptance of reality by proposing that they be allowed to declare force majeur in the face of major natural disturbance events beyond their control and thus be allowed to exclude emissions from such events in reporting progress towards emissions reduction targets. This only serves to compound the perversity by providing incentives for countries to exclude emissive activities from their accounts.

The sensible approach which HSI has been urging upon Australian officials ' “ to no effect, so far ' “ is that negotiators should abandon the approach of dividing land into ' ˜managed' and ' ˜unmanaged' areas and replace it with an approach which identifies managed and unmanaged activities. This would create an incentive for countries and landholders to develop management strategies that would allow previously ' ˜unmanaged' activities to be brought within the basket of ' ˜managed' activities. This would provide incentives for investing in disease control and fires suppression, to mention but two opportunities, because any success in reducing emissions could then be included in national accounts.

Peatlands need to be included

Last year' s UNFCCC COP in Cancun made good progress in asking SBSTA to develop methodologies to allow peat soils to be included in Annex 1 countries' emissions accounts. The scientific understanding of peatswamp (organic) soils and vegetation is now considered sufficiently advanced to allow robust methodologies to be adopted which would allow countries to estimate emissions from peat as a result of draining and rewetting ' “ but, most importantly, as a result of simply maintaining drained organic soils.

This is a critical point with significant policy implications ' “ while emissions from clearing forests are largely limited to those associated with the once-off act of clearing, emissions from draining peat continue for as long as the peat remains drained.

In other words, reducing emission from peat swamp deforestation and degradation (REDD+) is only possible by the combination of:

  1. Preventing further peatland degradation and drainage (from new conversion or intensified drainage on already drained peatland). This will, however, merely maintain annual GHG emissions on the status quo level, because emissions from already drained peatland will continue.
  2. Reducing drainage intensity in already degraded and drained peatlands. This requires peatland rewetting and reforestation (i.e. reducing drainage levels and/or intensity) is the only means to decrease annual emissions from peat.

The good news is that things are in train to allow Annex 1 countries to choose to include emissions from their drained peat soils into their emissions accounts and thence demonstrate progress towards meeting emissions reduction targets by rewetting previously drained peatlands.

Leakage ' “ a responsibility of consumers more than producers

Little Tuvalu made a really important contribution to the discussions in Cancun last year in suggesting that a new global framework is needed to address leakage of emissions associated with reducing emissions from forest-related activities. Leakage is the term used to describe failure to capture gains in terms of reduced emissions by changing forest management in one place because the emissive activity is simply displaced to another place.

Currently, it is envisaged that a REDD+ mechanism would work by recognising the success of a country in reducing overall emissions from deforestation and forest degradation from forests within its jurisdiction and control. But what good is it for the atmosphere if, for instance, logging effort displaced by forest protection decisions in one country simply starts up again in another country.

HSI considers that the answer to this conundrum is to think of leakage as a problem or consumer countries rather than producer countries ' “ it is the demand for timber and other commodities in international trade that drives deforestation and forest degradation and leakage from one country to another. When looked at as a demand-side issue, the need is for a new international mechanism that rewards consumer countries for reducing their demand for commodities that drive degradation and deforestation.

Alistair Graham and Peg Putt are representing Humane Society International and Global Witness respectively at both the Panama preparatory session and the Durban meeting of SBSTA, SBI and the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. They will also be representing the Ecosystem Climate Alliance: Humane Society International, Global Witness, Environmental Investigation Agency, Australian Orangutan Project, Nepenthes, Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Foundation Norway, The Rainforest Foundation, UK, Wetlands International and the Wilderness Society. www.ecosystemclimate..org.

Web: AndreasLustig.com